SINO-US RELATIONS
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Donald Trump inauguration

Trump diplomacy: how will it affect China?

Experts advise patience in early days of new US administration

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 8:00am

When US president-elect Donald Trump pronounced the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, many in China saw it as a sign of the decline of the American-led world trading order and a chance for China to rise to the occasion and rewrite the rules.

Trump’s background as a billionaire businessman earned him goodwill and even popularity among Chinese people during the US presidential election campaign and immediately after his victory in November, especially since his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had a reputation as a harsh critic of China.

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Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience also gave many Chinese analysts the false hope he might confine his tough rhetoric in US-China relations to economic issues, and ignore long-standing and bitter political disputes between the two countries.

But that optimism ended on December 2, 24 days after the election, when Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China sees as a breakaway province.

Trump has proven to be more volatile than expected with his frequent outbursts against China on the campaign trail and his Twitter postings, even testing China’s most sensitive “red line” issue with remarks challenging the one-China principle.

Beijing has been unsuccessful in attempts to get more clues on how much of Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric will be put into action by his administration. But pundits said that even though the United States might not continue its pivot to Asia, it could seek other ways to contain China.

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President Xi Jinping had a phone conversation with Trump on November 14, six days after his election victory, and State Councillor Yang Jiechi has met Trump adviser Michael Flynn. But observers said there had been a lack of official communications between the two sides. Chinese business leaders have been more successful, with Jack Ma Yun, the chairman of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, meeting Trump in New York last week and Anbang Insurance chairman Wu Xiaohui meeting Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a key adviser, after the election.

China’s think tanks and foreign policy advisers have been holding rounds of Trump-themed seminars and roundtable discussions, and have released reports on their initial assessment of future Sino-US ties.

“Since Trump was elected, he has had no in-depth communication with [the Chinese leadership]; China has been eager to communicate with him,” said Shi Yinhong, an adviser to China’s State Council and director of the Centre for American Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University.

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In an earlier congratulatory telegram and the phone conversation with Trump, Xi mentioned the importance of cooperation, mutual respect and avoiding confrontation – all elements of the “new model of major country relations” which he proposed to outgoing US President Barack Obama in mid 2013. But Xi did not use the term in the phone call or in the telegram.

Ni Shixiong, a former dean of the school of international relations and public affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the phone call reflected Xi’s eagerness to shape future Sino-US relations, but that he was also being “patient” in getting used to Trump, whose leadership style differed starkly from that of previous US presidents.

“Xi was wise in not mentioning the term “new model of major country relations” so that Trump won’t reject the idea right away,” Ni said. “Xi is testing Trump’s reaction. He still wants to insist on [building the new model of major country relations].”

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But 18 days after taking the phone call from Xi, Trump broke a decades-old diplomatic taboo with his phone conversation with Tsai. His nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, added to Beijing’s concerns last week when he reiterated America’s commitment – first made by Obama in 2014 – to help Japan defend disputed islets in the East China Sea if China, which also claims them, attempted to take them by force.

Yan Xuetong, director of the institute of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said he expected greater efforts to contain China under Trump.

“Trump will not continue the rebalance to Asia policy, and it will not be just a change in the use of terms,” Yan said, adding that the field of competition between China and the US would shift to East Asia.

Yan said the US would add Russia to the list of countries it hoped would help contain China – currently including Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore and Vietnam, among others – and ramp up the security pressure over Taiwan and North Korea.

“As the US is losing its advantage over Southeast Asia, Trump will focus more on America’s advantage over East Asia, with Taiwan being important leverage,” he added.

Yan said China’s relations with Russia, one of its closest security partners, would be put to the test, with Trump’s flirtation with Russian President Vladimir Putin sparking concerns among Chinese experts over the possibility of a US-Russia alliance against China.

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Wu Dahui, an expert in China-Russia relations at Tsinghua University, said at a forum on January 7 that security cooperation between Beijing and Moscow was unlikely to be affected under Trump, and that the biggest changes were likely to be seen in economic ties, particularly energy cooperation. Tillerson built up close business ties with Russia in his previous job as chief executive of oil giant Exxon Mobil.

“The most important aspect of China-Russia relations is strategic cooperation,” Wu said. “We survived Western sanctions in 1989 because Russia didn’t join the West, and now Russia survived Western sanctions because China didn’t take part in it.”

Yuan Peng, vice-president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said it was important for Beijing to seek closer ties with Russia in the Trump era.

While Trump was likely to lift economic sanctions against Russia, Yuan said “the US mistrust of Russia is even stronger than their mistrust of China”.

“The US may disagree with China’s way of dealing with things, but their mistrust of Russia’s culture is more deep-rooted,” he said.

The personal relationship built up between Xi and Putin would also help secure bilateral ties, Yuan said.

On another front, wayward ally North Korea, Chinese experts generally agree that Pyongyang’s nuclear programme is likely to be the biggest threat in the next few years, but they have yet to reach a consensus on how to deal with an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang.

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Following North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s claim that his nation was in the “final stage” of developing a nuclear-armed ballistic missile capable of attacking the US mainland, Trump took to Twitter to accuse China of not doing enough to rein in North Korea.

But Tang Yongsheng, the deputy director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at China’s National Defence University, said Beijing had been too “accommodative” to the US in its North Korea policy, and that Beijing should take a more active role in coordinating the US and Russia in solving the crisis.

“Regarding North Korea, there is a huge gap in understanding among different experts and government bodies in China,” Tang said.

He said Beijing’s North Korea policy had been limited to trying to prevent Pyongyang’s nuclear development and the escalation of tensions, and had yet to outline a comprehensive policy that addressed the deep-rooted cause of North Korea’s confrontation with the West.

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“I used to think that America was still very powerful and was not in decline,” said Wang Jisi, dean of the school of international studies at Peking University. “But now, what is happening in America makes me think that it is not the America I used to know any more.

“If America is in decline, which country can take up the role?”

Xi is attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, becoming the first Chinese president to do so. In his keynote address, Xi defended globalisation and warned against the rising tide of protectionism.

Shi said China would have to build a military base in the Western Pacific but first needed to “manage relations with our neighbouring countries”.

“America’s allies are stronger in capabilities than ours,” he said. “We need to seek the building of closer ties with more powerful and capable countries, in particular with those to the East [of China].”

China’s aggressive island-building programme in the South China Sea, and evidence that military facilities are being built on the artificial islands, has heightened tensions with its neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and Singapore.

Its grand “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative has also met with scepticism from its neighbours and the US.

Both Tang and Ni pointed out that in the Trump era, it was important for China to remain cautious and restrained in its strategy.

“In the past 10 years, we have overemphasised America’s strategic retreat and underestimated the US, mistakenly thinking that it doesn’t have enough resources to counter China’s rise,” Tang said.

Ni warned that China should avoid “overestimating its own capabilities”.

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China’s foreign policy direction in recent years seems to have moved away from the traditional wisdom embodied in late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time (tao guang yang hui), and Ni called on the Chinese leadership to abide by it once more, even as China expanded its influence on the world stage.

“We have promoted the good news too much over the bad news, to a point that we may be under the illusion that we are going to replace the US [as the world’s greatest power],” Ni said.

Growing nationalist sentiment in China in recent years had seen stronger calls for China to act more assertively over issues like the South China Sea and Taiwan.

“But being tao guang yang hui is not mutually exclusive with China’s rise,” Ni said. “Being a stronger power doesn’t mean we have to abandon this principle.”